In the seventh episode of the first season of Babylon 5, the crew must deal an increasing number of attacks on aliens. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Babylon 5.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of hate crimes, racism, xenophobia
I’ve seen a number of stories like this in the science fiction realm, so part of me wants to give this show the benefit of the doubt because, through sheer circumstance, Babylon 5 is on my schedule after so many other SF shows that exist in the same genre. So, there’s an element of this that’s going to be repetitive, and I acknowledge that. None of this is particularly original commentary; there’s not much to be said here that probably hasn’t been said already.
I think that, like “Mind War,” this episode is a very solid chance for the show to demonstrate what it can do with episodic television while still experimenting with serialization. “The War Prayer” is deeply uncomfortable for most of its run, and the pacing allows for a consistent escalation over the running time. Which is great! The episode also focuses on an exploration of culture and the way it can clash with others, with time, with perspective. LET’S DISCUSS.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m enjoying the way that Babylon 5 peels back layers as a means of worldbuilding. Here, the story of Kiron and Aria introduces the cultural tradition of arranged marriage, which the Centauri practice to pass along power and wealth between families. There’s a sense of generational duty in all this, one which Kiron and Aria want to disobey because their feelings seem so much more important to them than familial duty. And then, through Londo, we see how loveless marriages aren’t supposed to be questioned. His three wives were not people he adored, but they shaped his life.
But at what cost? Love is overrated, Londo says, but then he sees these two teenagers, willing to disregard and discard their entire culture, all because they love one another. They are alive. It’s undeniable! Look how dedicated they are to one another. Even after Kiron is nearly killed by one of the Home Guard terrorists, Aria is undeterred. They both want what they want, and that kind of love seems pure to Londo, so much so that he has to examine why it is that he believes these kids have to submit to the same rules as he did. What does it mean to be a Centauri if a specific tradition does not hold the same significance to you?
It’s a plot that works really well within an episode that addresses prejudice and cultural complications, and it was sweet to see Londo admit that he was wrong in this instance, that there’s something inherently messed up about how this tradition was being enforced. His solution allows the kids to return home and fulfill their obligations while ultimately giving them the choice to do as they want in the end. It was a surprising resolution, but a touching one.
So, I recognize that the message here largely works. Ivanova’s role is EASILY the best part of it all. And there’s a clear attempt to address the insidious ways in which bigotry can spread amongst a community! It’s creepy to know that after eight years apart, Malcolm just became a different person. Hell, is that even true? That’s why the last line is so haunting; what if Malcolm believed this shit his whole life? (Spoiler alert: he probably did.)
All of this is fine and well, and “The War Prayer” does a decent job of addressing racial hatred… using all white people. It’s that old Metaphorical Oppression thing again that a lot of genre properties use. It’s a means of exploring a specific phenomenon, and I understand that this episode works to largely address both racism and xenophobia. But it also contains exactly one character who isn’t white that’s heavily involved in the story, and oh lord, the scene is just… really uncomfortable? Clearly it wasn’t intentional, but the optics of having a white man lecture a Chinese man on racial bigotry was so fucking wild, y’all. And I understand that the context is different, but we also have no suggestion that racism on Earth is over, either. (I don’t get that sense from the show, for what it’s worth.) Thus, we’re left with a story that is solid, but can’t ever dig in deep to the truly important shit because it’s just a surface-level examination. How much integration is there on Earth? Are aliens totally a part of society, or is most of that confined to the Babylon 5 station? Do they hold leadership positions, or are they merely practicing cultural exchange? We don’t actually know!
Granted, I also know that this show leaves things to be addressed or resolved for later, and Malcolm outright confirms that Home Guard has people ALL OVER. So, there’s bound to more in future episodes. As I said before, I found Ivanova’s aspect this plot to be the most compelling element, but I also am ready to devote myself to her until the end of time, so I’m biased. But there is something meaningful in that story, particularly at this point of history. How many people have revealed to us in the last two years just how much of a bigot they actually are? How many of us have severed friendships, professional or personal relationships, or alliances because of the gross hatred someone just “revealed”? So, in that sense, this episode succeeds. Ivanova sets up her former lover and gleefully sends him away. WHAT A MODEL OF BEHAVIOR. Let’s all do the same.
The video for “The War Prayer” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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